The old truck rattled a lot. I probably should have taken better care of it when it was newer, so it wouldn’t rattle so much now. I suppose.
The important thing is I kept it running now – I know how to take care of it, and it gets me where I need to go. It’s old enough that it doesn’t have computers and GPS and all of the things that track where it is and where it’s been. Not that those things aren’t important – to me – I just don’t know whether they’re important enough to anyone else who’s minding their own business.
After awhile the rattles just fade into the background, and I don’t notice them unless I have a passenger who says, “Whoa! This truck rattles a lot!” or if the rattle changes. Change means something shifted and I should make sure I don’t need to shift that something back into place.
The rattles all came to rest as I pulled up to Pete Bratcher’s place and turned off the engine. Oh, and one other advantage to keeping that old truck:
“I’d recognize the sound of that old rust bucket anywhere!” Pete said with a big grin as he walked out of his garage wiping his hands on a rag. “Hank Stiller, you son of a rabid goat, how the heck are ya?”
No great man hugs from Pete – he reached out a big meaty hand and slapped a vice grip around mine, searching deep into my eyes for every last light of authenticity I could muster. He barked out a laugh of genuine pleasure to see my old carcass.
“Doing fine, Pete, how are you?” I said. I’m not quite as outgoing as he is. In fact, a lot of times I forget to look into the other guy’s eyes when I shake his hand. With Pete, you have to make eye contact – actually, you want to make eye contact because it’s such a relief to look into sincere and happy honesty.
“I am one sorry son of a bitch, but so’s everyone else, so I’m dealing with it,” he said with that ever-present smile. “How’s it going out in the woods? You keeping Buzz busy?”
“Business is a little slow,” I conceded and eased into the subject of my visit. “I appreciate that job you sent my way the other day.”
Pete looked like he wasn’t sure what I meant for just long enough to worry me.
“Young lady?” I led the witness. “Called herself Stella Maris?”
Now he remembered. The laugh came back.
“Is that what she said her name was?” he said. “Oh, that’s a good one. Oh, yeah, the Star of the Sea, that’s Kathy, come to think of it.”
“That’s her real name, Kathy? How do you know her?”
“I’ve known her since the day after my sister gave birth the third time,” Pete chuckled. “She’s my niece. Kathy Bratcher – the E.coli-infested pile of turkey dung that sired her never did marry my sister, who was smart enough not to give her daughter his name.”
“I don’t remember you ever mentioning a niece, or a sister for that matter,” I said.
“I have, too, mentioned Phyllis before, you just have a lousy memory,” Pete said, and at the name Phyllis I dimly recalled some mention. “I don’t talk about her much, she lives a thousand miles from here, haven’t seen her in a few ages.”
“I guess that does sound familiar.” Pete and I aren’t very close to our families. “I needed to check with you to make sure she’s legit.”
“She’s as legit as I am,” Pete said, letting loose another laugh when he realized that wasn’t a ringing endorsement. “No, she’s the real deal, Hank. I don’t know about this job she’s working on, but she’s a Bratcher through and through. What you see is what you get every time, and she won’t lie to you.”
“Good enough for me.”
“You bet she is.”
“And you never mentioned your niece Kathy before because …?”
“Because she’s too good for a sorry ass like yourself, Hank,” he shouted with glee, slapping me on the shoulder. “Nah, I haven’t seen her since she was probably 12. Filled out nice, didn’t she? Tough, too. She’s a Bratcher, straight through.”
A good deal of the rest of the visit was spent going over what we knew about the train station’s security systems. Buzz and I and the girl were going to go in between midnight and 2:30 a.m. – the freights only ran by day and the Amtrak rumbled through town around 3:15 most mornings. The place would be as good as abandoned in the time frame we were looking at.
“How long to make the coin?”
“Another couple of days,” I said.
“So you’re thinking, what, Monday night?”
“Tuesday morning, yeah. Quietest time of the quietest night, I figure.”
“Pete, is there anything else I need to know about your niece?”
“Not that I can think of. Like what?”
“Like why did she tell me her name is Stella Maris?”
“Probably didn’t want you to know she’s a relative of mine, not at first.”
“Ha! Would you want to admit you were related to me?”
“I’m going to guess she didn’t want you to do this thing as a favor to me,” Pete said. “It was enough that she used my name to get through the door with you.”
“Would it be?” I asked. “I mean, would I be doing you a favor to do this?”
“Hank, you do what you need to do,” he said. “Like I said, she was 12 the last time I saw her, which is what? At least nine or 10 years. She’s family, but no, do this for yourself, or don’t do this, it don’t matter to me one way or the other.”
“All right, then.”
With that, Buzz and I were cleared to get on with it.